The NFL's portrait of staying power just missed his first game in 10-plus years—that's 167 straight starts, or 10,363 snaps—but this Browns tackle knows the league won't stop to mourn him
IT'S STRANGE what you think about when your season ends prematurely—really strange for me, considering that in 10½ years with the Browns, since opening day 2007, I had never missed a single play. That's 10,363 consecutive downs, the longest streak in NFL history. That changed in Week 7, when I tore my left triceps trying to push away Tennessee linebacker Brian Orakpo.
Over and over in the day or two after my tendon snapped, the same words kept coming into my mind: Move the drill. I thought of those words that Sunday night, processing the injury. I thought of them when the pain woke me up Monday morning, and before I went into surgery on Tuesday. Move the drill.
In high school, in Wisconsin, I remember a teammate getting hurt in practice, and him lying on the field in the middle of a drill. The whole practice stopped. Everyone wanted to see how the guy was doing. When that happens in high school, when someone is hurt seriously, sometimes the practice just ends. But my first year at the University of Wisconsin, I remember a guy going down in practice—he was in pain, lying there on the field—and everybody stopped to look. After a couple of seconds, one of the coaches hollered, "Move the drill!"
We all moved 30 yards down the field and continued practice. I thought to myself, This is the most savage thing I've ever seen in my life! That was my welcome to big-time football. It was the day I learned: The train keeps going. I'm not the train; I'm a passenger.
When you're one of the biggest guys on the team, you can think, I'm more of a train, not a passenger. But as much as people tell me they'll miss me, the show goes on. They're still playing. I'm not. It's the thing players have the toughest time accepting.
WHEN I woke up at my house in Cleveland on the Sunday of my first game away, part of me—more than a little part—felt, I don't want to watch this; it'll be too hard. But as kickoff against Minnesota rolled around, I started to get a little emotional. I felt a bit like a die-hard fan, living and dying with every play. That is not who I am as a player. I don't ride that roller coaster. If you get up and down and up and down, you get worn out. That's no good. But I was focused on my replacement, Spencer Drango (sidebar). This was going to be a tough matchup for him, going against one of the best speed rushers, Everson Griffen. I told him, "Stick to your game plan. If he beats you one time on his second- or third-best move, don't change."
You wonder how you're going to feel watching your team for the first time. If we play well, will I feel lousy because it shows they really don't need me? If we play terribly, will I feel good because it shows they desperately need me? I thought I might have felt something like that. But late in the third quarter on Sunday, with a lead over a good team, the Vikings—I've been through so many losses that it was just exciting to see us be so competitive.
My biggest fear about watching the game was that I would be needed, and I wouldn't be there for them. That didn't happen. Instead, I thought: This is as good as I've felt since I hurt myself.
I WISH there was some dramatic story I could tell you about the injury, but there really isn't. That whole game against Tennessee, I was having pain in my elbow. I thought it was tendinitis. In the first half I told the guard next to me, Joel Bitonio, "Man, my elbow is really hurting me. I don't feel like I can push people at all." But that's not all that unique. Maybe 20 times in my career I've played through pain like that.
Then, in the third quarter, this play comes in: 13 Wilson. Every team has it, a weakside run from the shotgun. In this case, the back comes through the left tackle and left guard. So Duke Johnson hit the hole between Joel and me, and I went to take one shove on Orakpo, and I felt the tendon in my elbow snap. There was a sharp, stabbing pain, like hitting your funny bone, but it didn't go away. I remember yelling something like, "Ahhhooowww!" I could feel the tendon roll up my arm—a really creepy sensation.
Our trainer was on the field fast. He said, "Take some deep breaths." When they brought me to the sideline and put me in that injury tent, I took my elbow sleeve off and the doctor asked, "Can you push back against my resistance?" I couldn't. I knew it was over.
When I went to get X-rays after that I saw Annie, my wife, in the tunnel. We hugged; there were tears in both of our eyes. Then I saw our executive vice president, Sashi Brown. Neither of us spoke. We embraced. Silence. We each knew what the other was thinking.
The game was on TV in the locker room and I had so many emotions. Despair. Sadness that I wouldn't be out there with the guys, over the end of the streak. Worry for all the people who'd be worried about me.... On Monday, all those thoughts continued: What's it gonna be like watching? What's IR like? Was that the last snap I'd ever take in the NFL? Am I gonna keep playing next year, at 33? Retirement? I haven't put a lot of thought into it, and this is not the right time to think about it. Too many emotions. Part of me says, I don't want to go out like this. I want to try to do the Jerome Bettis and go out with a Super Bowl win. But the other part says, There's no way you can make a smart decision about that now.
That Tuesday morning I was lying in my hospital bed, prepping for surgery. Our doctor came in and told me, "We're gonna fix this up. It'll be better than new." They take a belt-and-suspenders approach: They weave a ribbon through the tendon, then they drill two holes in the elbow to reattach it. The pain was mostly from those holes.
I don't know what you're supposed to think before surgery, but I actually had pretty good thoughts. Like: I'm lucky this thing didn't snap at 9,998 plays—I really wanted to make it to 10,000. And: Think how amazing it is, in the NFL today, to play that long without really being hurt. Then they put me out.
A few miles away, the Browns were preparing the play without me for the first time since 2006. They'd moved the drill.
Thomas will write a semi-regular column for TheMMQB.com throughout the remainder of the season.
"YOU CAN THINK, I'M MORE OF A TRAIN, NOT A PASSENGER. BUT THE SHOW GOES ON. THEY'RE STILL PLAYING. I'M NOT."
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